BEREA — Coach Pat Shurmur doesn’t need his master’s degree in financial administration to do the math. Two losses in the first two games are tough to overcome and reach the playoffs. Three in a row to open the season makes it nearly impossible.
“I was a business major but statistics was my least favorite class,” the Michigan State graduate said Monday. “It was all the way across campus, I took it in the winter, I had to walk there and I didn’t understand it.
“But we’ve got to win this game.”
The Browns (0-2), one of just six teams without a win, host the Buffalo Bills (1-1) on Sunday afternoon.
Since 1990, only 12 percent of teams (22-of-184) to start 0-2 have made the playoffs, with none in the last three years. Only three teams have made the playoffs after going 0-3, the latest in 1998.
That bit of knowledge raises the stakes for a team and coaching staff already under the microscope with Jimmy Haslam set to take over as owner Oct. 16.
Not to pile on, but a Thursday night road game against AFC North rival Baltimore follows Sept. 27, with a trip to the New York Giants next Oct. 7. The Ravens were a play away from reaching the Super Bowl last season, and the Giants won it.
The Browns’ focus is on the Bills, who lost the opener 48-28 at the Jets and beat the Chiefs 35-17 in Buffalo on Sunday.
“We need to do what we can to win this football game against a team that’s coming off a big victory,” Shurmur said. “And I’ve got a lot of respect for Buffalo, because in my opinion they’ve done a lot of things to upgrade their roster in the last couple of years.”
The Browns feel they’ve done the same, but through the draft and without the splash the Bills have made in free agency. Cleveland’s young talent was on display Sunday in a 34-27 loss to the Bengals as quarterback Brandon Weeden (26-for-37 for 322 yards, two touchdowns and a 114.9 rating) and running back Trent Richardson (19 carries for 109 yards with rushing and receiving touchdowns) had breakout performances.
“We made progress without winning, which means you didn’t make progress,” Shurmur said. “I feel good about the way the team came in today and I feel good about the week of preparation we’re going to have.”
The opening losses have been frustrating but not without bright spots. An opportunistic defense that forced five turnovers was almost enough in the 17-16 opening loss to the Eagles. In Cincinnati, the surprisingly resurgent offense provided a needed dose of excitement.
The near-misses give middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson hope for the present and future.
“It’s not over,” he said of the season. “We have a lot of football to play, a ton of football to play.
“We’re close enough to win those games. We’ve just got to get over that hump, and once we figure out how to get over that hump it’s like a snowball effect. We’ll continue to string some wins together.”
Jackson, in his seventh season, has seen poor starts before. The Browns have been 1-1 twice in his tenure (2007 and ’11) and started 0-3 in 2006, ’08 and ’10. They were 0-4 on their way to 1-11 in 2009.
Jackson said part of his role as a captain and team leader is to keep the spirits of the young players high. “Just continue to be upbeat and continue to approach it like I approach every week, not to walk around here moping,” he said. “You have to take positives out of the losses.
“Right now, it’s easy to just lay your hat down and be like, ‘You know what? The season’s over with. We don’t have it.’ But we have a long season to go and if you can stay upbeat, things may turn around. Things may not turn around, but that’s something that’s out of my control. So me as a leader, I have to be the same guy every day so young guys know it’s tough to win in this league and it’s easy to lose in this league if you allow it. My message is keep fighting, keep pushing forward ’cause things could change in one week.”
In order for the Browns to flip the script, they must clean up the mistakes.
In Week 1, Weeden threw four interceptions and there were pivotal dropped passes. On Sunday, the primary errors were stupid penalties and missed tackles.
The Browns were flagged 10 times for 103 yards. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson lined up offside twice, rookie defensive tackle John Hughes jumped offside on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter and tight end Benjamin Watson and left tackle Joe Thomas had false starts.
“Some of the penalties we had we didn’t overcome,” Shurmur said. “For me, the ones that are avoidable, I mean truly avoidable, are the pre-snap ones that put you behind on the downs.”
The missed tackles started on the opening punt, as six guys failed to stop Adam Jones on an 81-yard return for a touchdown. The empty arms continued on defense.
Patterson couldn’t bring down receiver A.J. Green on a 10-yard touchdown, cornerback Buster Skrine missed multiple times after completions and most of the secondary whiffed on Andrew Hawkins’ 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“It was a ton of missed tackles everywhere,” Jackson said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to take that next step to finish games offensively, defensively and not give up big plays when we don’t need them right now.”
The work will begin again at practice Wednesday, and Shurmur and Co. hope it carries over to Sunday against the Bills.
“We’ve got to find a way to win, and I think we will,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said. “We’ve just gotta keep chopping wood, and I think everyone in this locker room understands.”